The Most Important Things to Know About Aging...And Then Some
Did you know that men can reach their physical peak as late as age 39? Sadly, women tend to reach their peak by age 36 or younger. For many, the “aging” process starts as young as 25 (sorry to report this to the younger readers). From the day we are born we are all getting older. That’s right…no one is getting younger. Try as we may, especially for those of us who are athletic warriors, it is difficult to admit that the song is true. “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future. We don’t run as quickly; our reaction times slow; our eyesight isn’t what it used to be; we don’t bounce back from injury or recover from fatigue as rapidly. We fight aging. We try to ignore it. We may even try to deny it. After all, if you’re like me, you still FEEL 36 in your mind! It’s paradoxical…the thought of living a long life appeals to most, but the idea of getting old appeals to no one!
As a child, we couldn’t wait for our next birthday. We couldn’t wait to reach 16 so we could drive; 18 so we could vote; 21 so we could legally drink. We couldn’t wait to fall in love, come of age, have a career, maybe have kids, own a home, and make a difference in the world. When you’re 15 or 20, it’s hard to look 15 years down the road. It’s even difficult to do that for some at age 30 or 40. We’re so busy bumbling through life, trying to get comfortable in our own skin, and struggling to gain confidence in our early years, it becomes impossible to get a vision outside the tight center of our world that we live in.
Many of us wonder how old is “old”? Well, that certainly depends on the age of the one doing the judging. When I took my daughter to kindergarten the first day a little boy ran up to introduce himself to my lovely 5-year-old and subsequently asked if I was her grandmother. Geez! I’ve never wanted to slap a kid so badly as that day when I was 37! Sixty can seem old to a 30-year-old, and eighty-five can seem old to a 60-year-old. Our definition of “old” changes as we age. The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes people in most nations as being “old” after the age of 60. But in Africa, you are considered “old” when you hit 50!
So what age is the perfect age? Or, if you could freeze time, at what age would you choose to remain? A recent survey of Americans aged 65 to 85 had interesting results when asked that question. The winner (40%) was age 36. Childhood came in second, age 6 (22%). And age 65 came in a close third (21%). Those surveyed indicated that by age 36 they felt they had some mastery of life skills and were more self-confident. That same survey asked what age span was perceived as most fun and what age span was least fun. You may be surprised to learn that the most fun age span was deemed to be 60-75 (62%). The least fun was the age span of 40-55 (77%) due to the reported increased levels of stress caused by life changes during that time, as well as adjusting to the aging process.
Why is the aging process so stressful? Other than decreased elasticity in the skin, less collagen, fewer sex hormones, decreased metabolism, deterioration of taste buds, sight, and hearing, decreased lung capacity, less bone density, and less cell regeneration, what could possibly be stressful? It must be the loss of hair, or perhaps new hair starting to sprout from places unforeseen. Or maybe it’s the new wrinkles, or that our ears and nose start to sag and look larger due to decreased elasticity. Whatever the case, the aging process can bring stress. No one wants to look old, but for some the aging process stings a bit more. If you’ve never had beauty, it’s less difficult to watch it fade. If you’ve never been athletic, it’s not as painful if you get dropped from a team for being a little slower. If you’ve never had a stunning physique, it’s not as frustrating when you can’t maintain those proportions as your metabolism decreases.
Certainly, aging is a period of change, especially in the “middle aged years.” But change can be good. Beginnings can be exciting. Unfortunately, change can also bring endings and loss, and many of these come during that dreaded age span of 40-55. Divorce, losing a pet, losing a parent, losing a spouse, change of job, an unwanted move, your house becoming an empty nest…Kelly Clarkson sings, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But sometimes those changes DO feel like they kill parts of us. And in the process of death, it hurts…badly. Suddenly, or perhaps subtly, a season of life ends and a new one begins. A familiar folk song was taken from the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to break down, a time to build up, a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” When there is a change in our “season” it is natural that there will be a time of mourning before the time of joy. Sometimes it just takes a while for us to realize that season is really over. We fool ourselves by trying to hang on. But what we’re really doing is delaying the joy that can come with that new season. Yet sometimes it just takes a while to get through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.
Once acceptance occurs, we see that aging is just that…a series of seasons. And since when did aging become such a bad thing? There was a time when aging brought respect. And there are still cultures where the aged are revered. Our society has geared us to fight aging in every way we can, with our money, our diet, our medicine, our clothing, our surgeries, and our minds. We desperately seek ways to prevent aging, all the while trying not to show our age or, at times, even reveal our age. Yet we are encouraged to “age gracefully.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but I think it includes not wearing miniskirts after age 65. We chase the fountain of youth as we dread becoming old and gray, or a burden on someone. And it doesn’t quite seem fair that gray hair and wrinkles make a woman old but make a man “distinguished.” But we all know life isn’t fair. Never was, never will be. But I, for one, am grateful it isn’t fair. I probably deserve a lot more bad consequences than what I’ve received if we’re really talking fair!
What exactly makes us age…other than time, of course. The inevitable casualties of aging are mostly due to cells failing to divide and replace each other over time. This lack of cellular regeneration is accompanied by a gradual breakdown of the immune system and can be rushed along by environmental factors, disease, and other damaging personal habits. As we age, our cells can become confused and actually start attacking themselves, especially in the lungs. Of course, there are much more complicated biological demons such as telomeres, DNA methylation, and free radicals that can play a significant role. So, we pump our bodies with antioxidants to combat the free radicals. We sunscreen up as adults after frying in our younger years. We keep our bodies in motion so they can stay in motion. If we’re smart, we give up bad habits. But regardless, aging is the inevitable part of living. Eventually, most of us learn to accept it, but scientists continue to work on miracle drugs to slow down the process. Clinical trials of a new drug, RTB101, have shown to be effective in slowing down the decline of the immune system and the aging process in insects and mice. But alas, it is not approved for us humans yet.
If it was up to Harvard educated physician, Ezekiel Emanuel, who served as Special Advisor to President Obama for the construction of Obamacare, those scientific studies would cease to exist. For those who are contemplating their older years, you’ll be happy to know that President Obama did not agree with his advisor’s views or recommendations. Dr. Emanuel argued that after age 75 people are more a burden to society, leading less fulfilling and meaningless lives. He actually proposed that society should refuse all heroic medical interventions, vaccinations, and antibiotics for those after the age of 75. Had this passed, our current president would have to start worrying!
As crazy as that idea may seem, there is an underlying pervasive theme in our society that can creep into our thinking— “We are only worth what we can contribute.” That is my biggest fear in aging, that people may start to think I have less to offer; I am replaceable; I am less valuable. Those types of thoughts are an insult to our dignity, the creatures that God created. We all have worth. We are all part of God’s plan, and as long as we are still on this side of the grass, I believe there is a reason and a purpose. If you believe that this life on earth is all there is, it is natural to seek to extend it as long as possible, to revere it and treasure it. But what if there is more? Scripture has some interesting insights on aging and its seasons from which we can gain comfort and hope.
Psalm 92:14 “Even in old age, they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”
Job 12:12 “Wisdom belongs to the aged and understanding to the old.”
Isaiah 46:4 “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”
Psalm 139:13-16 “For you, O God, created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; I know full well that your works are wonderful. The bones of my frame were not hidden from you when I was made…Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days of my life that you ordained for me were written in your book even before one came to be.”
Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”
Exactly what is the perfect age? I would propose that the perfect age is when you realize exactly how short and fragile life actually is. When we realize that James 4:14 is true. “What is your life? For you are but a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” For a dear friend, that realization came when her child died at the age of 4 from leukemia. She was 33. For me, it was when my husband died at age 27. For others, it is a cancer diagnosis or a debilitating accident. Life is short, whether you die at 4, 40, or 84. Even if we live a long life, it is but a short time in the scheme of things. We long to make a difference, to be relevant before it’s too late. Perhaps our time would be better utilized finding joy in each day and bringing joy to others. Sometimes the gift of joy and caring makes all the difference in the world to another when you least suspect it. A teacher who has no idea of the impact he made on a student simply by caring. A friend who had no words to say but is there during a time of crisis. Or just a regular person who encourages another during a struggle of daily life.
The seasons of aging are gifts. Gifts to be shared. Gifts to learn from and to grow by. Each season is a time to discover the “awe” in life. Each and every season is a time to dream. We are only old when we stop dreaming, when we stop discovering new things, experiencing new adventures, growing in new directions. Joy should be at the heart of aging, for it is in growing older that we now have the wisdom to mix with wonder, the confidence to reach out boldly or attempt new things, the people skills to nurture relationships, the humility to realize we are not perfect and don’t have to try to be, and the spunk to cease being consumed by what others think of us. Our years of experiences are treasures that can be the building blocks passed forward to others.
I’ll close with some passing thoughts given by Andy Rooney (who lived to the ripe age of 92) on the wonders of aging…especially as it pertains to women.
“I value an older woman. She will never wake you in the middle of the night to ask, ‘What are you thinking?’ She could care less what you’re thinking. Older women are generous with praise. They know what it’s like to be unappreciated. They have the self-assurance to introduce you to her women friends, whereas a younger woman will often ignore even her best friend because she doesn’t trust the guy with other women. Older women are forthright and honest. They’ll tell you right off if you’re a jerk, or if you’re acting like one. You don’t ever have to wonder where you stand with her. Yes, for every stunning, smart, well-coifed hot woman of forty-plus, there is a bald, paunchy relic in yellow pants making a fool of himself with some twenty-two-year-old waitress.”
Who said age doesn’t bring wisdom? Thank you, Mr. Rooney! 😊
Anne Hope is the award winning author of Bent Pages...a sharp, funny and deeply inspirational narrative. Please feel free to forward this post to all who may be aging! Or, you can sign up to receive blogs directly at: https://www.annehopebooks.com/blog.